Golden Venture Passengers Still Drifting

The Associated Press
Thursday, April 27, 2006; 7:02 AM

NEW YORK -- On a journey from his Chinese homeland, Arming He escaped across a mountainous border, traveled by ship to Africa and crammed into a rusted freighter carrying 295 other refugees.

His ordeal didn't end when the hulk, the Golden Venture, ran aground in Queens in 1993 in an attempt to unload its human cargo. He was imprisoned along with other survivors.

Arming and the last 53 detainees were freed on President Clinton's order in 1997.

Nine years later, their journey still isn't over. About 30 survivors reunited in New York on Wednesday to plead for permanent legal status in the United States as a documentary on their struggle premieres this week at the TriBeCa Film Festival.

Directed by Peter Cohn and narrated by actor Tim Robbins, "Golden Venture" follows the story of four passengers and their uncertain legal status.

Despite Clinton's order, the survivors were formally denied asylum and can be deported.

Without documents allowing them to live in the United States, it's hard for them to switch jobs, buy homes or get a driver's license. If they leave the U.S., the only way to return is to get smuggled back in.

Like millions of the nation's other undocumented immigrants, they have put down deep roots but have no path to citizenship.

"It has been very difficult," Arming said through an interpreter in an interview this week.

For now, political considerations are preventing the Golden Venture refugees from being sent home.

A coalition of lawyers and activists from York, Pa., that began lobbying for the passengers when they were imprisoned there has asked Congress to pass a bill giving the group U.S. residency.

The request has made no progress, but U.S. immigration officials have indicated they will hold off on deportations while the bill is pending.

The former passengers who gathered in Manhattan's Chinatown on Wednesday said they would present a petition to President Bush, asking that he use his executive authority to grant them residency.

Critics say the group essentially comprises lawbreakers who got caught flouting U.S. immigration rules and deserve no special treatment.

Golden Venture survivor Timothy Yu, a Christian who claimed he left communist China to practice his religion more freely, said he believes he has already been punished enough.

"I came here, 14 years ago, for freedom," said Yu, now the owner of a restaurant in Mount Holly, N.J. "Everybody is eager to come here for freedom, for a better life. But we pay a higher price to get here."

While the Golden Venture passengers have continued to drift, the government has taken a more aggressive role in prosecuting the smugglers who organized their trip.

Lee Peng Fei, the voyage's mastermind, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Another smuggler, Cheng Chui Ping, better known by her nickname, Sister Ping, was sentenced to 35 years.

Prosecutors said both exploited and abused immigrants, in many cases charging them tens of thousands of dollars for the trips, to be collected from their wages once they arrived. Ten immigrants died trying to swim to shore, while dozens suffered hypothermia and other injuries.

Arming said that after he was released from detention in 1997, he was approached by men who demanded the balance of his fee: $10,000.

Arming said he paid it, explaining that the gangsters had threatened his parents, still in China.

Meanwhile, lack of legal status hasn't stopped him from opening a restaurant in Fort Myers, Fla.

But he can't drive, hasn't been able to see his two children in China in 14 years and is concerned the government will suddenly stop tolerating his presence.

"I worry about being arrested," he said.

© 2006 The Associated Press